I remember being blown away the first time I saw Atari’s Gauntlet arcade machine. What stood out immediately was that it had four joysticks instead of the usual one or two that most arcade cabinets had. The idea that four people could play at once was relatively new back in 1985, yet the fact that the game could be played by just a single player still made it a real winner.
The game was set with a classic fantasy setting of warriors and magicians. Each joystick was on a different coloured panel, which represented the colour of your on screen character. You could choose from four classes of character, each with differing abilities. These were Warrior, Wizard, Valkyrie and Elf.
Unsurprisingly the warrior was the strongest character, whilst the wizard was the best character for using the magic potions that could be picked up in the games levels. The Valkyrie had the best armour (ironic considering she was only wearing a chain mail bikini) and the Elf was the fastest character.
Apparently the characters all had names, but this was lost on me at the time. Their names were Thor (Warrior), Merlin (Wizard – unsurprisingly), Thyra (Valkyrie) and Questor (Elf).
In the game you had to work your way around a maze destroying the evil monsters who appeared out of little “generators”. For example, Ghosts were one of the first and weakest enemies you came across, and they spawned from a little pile of bones. Ghosts made up for their strength weakness in numbers though, so destroying the generators to stop new enemies appearing was a useful tactic.
There were various other monsters, including Grunts, who were basically a stronger variation on Ghosts, Lobbers, who threw things at you, and Demons, who could shoot fireballs. The strongest enemy of all was Death, who appeared in the classic Grim Reaper style. Death couldn’t be killed by normal weapons, with a Wizards potion being the only safe way of disposing of him. The other way to get rid of Death was to let him feed off your energy, as when he had taken enough he disappeared.
The gameplay therefore consisted of shooting enemies to get to an exit point, whilst collecting potions, treasure and food to boost your constantly dwindling energy. You also had to find keys to open doors, because otherwise you would face a long wait walking about doing very little whilst you waited for the timer to tick down, which opened all the doors on the level.
Gauntlet really was ground breaking in so many ways. Apart from the fact four players could play together, the game also displayed a huge number of enemies on screen at one time, and also had a really great line of sound effects. Hearing some of the sounds today remind you instantly of picking up a key or reaching the exit, and the snippets of speech telling you that “blue wizard is about to die!” just made the game feel even more frantic.
The game made its way out of the arcades to just about every popular computer system at the time, and many more in the following years, including most recently both the XBox 360 and PlayStation 3. It even did so well that it got a proper arcade sequel, something which was quite a rare occurrence in the eighties.